This is one of the most common criticisms leveled against atheists. Many believers see the atheist assertion that there almost certainly is no God as unspeakably arrogant.
The usual comeback is to point out the arrogance of faith: the arrogance, among other things, of thinking that “I really don’t think there’s any evidence for this” is trumped by “My heart tells me this is so.” But, today, I want to talk about a different kind of religious arrogance.
I’m talking about the arrogance of the human-centered universe.
I’m talking about the arrogance of believing that the universe was created by a loving god for the purpose of creating human beings with souls who could love him, obey him, and go to his heaven.
And I’m not even just talking about creationism, either. I’m talking about reasonably science-friendly religion that still sees humankind as the centerpiece of God’s plan.
As many writers before me have pointed out, the history of science is the history of humankind receding from the spotlight and into the wings. Copernicus and Galileo showed us that the earth was not the center of the universe: we revolve around the sun, not the other way around. We then learned that our sun wasn’t the center of the universe, either: it was only one of many billions of stars in our galaxy. And in this century, we found out that not even our galaxy was the center of the universe: it was only one of billions and billions of galaxies, in a universe so enormous it staggers the imagination and the ability of writers to express it.
Even here on Earth — here on this puny, puny rock whizzing around one of billions of stars in one of billions of galaxies — we’re not center stage. The twin demons of paleontology and evolution have disabused us of that notion. The theory of evolution has kicked humankind off the lofty Pinnacle of Creation platform, and put us in our rightful place as just one twig on the very bushy bush of life. Yes, we’re a twig with a startling ability to shape our environment — but even that doesn’t make us unique. Coral, earthworms, all those plants spewing out oxygen into the atmosphere… all have dramatic impacts on the physical world around them.
And when it comes to human hubris, paleontology just laughs in our face. “You think you’re special?” it scoffs. “You genus- come- lately, with your pathetic two and a half million year pedigree? Come back when you’ve survived for as long as the coelacanth or the cockroach, and we’ll talk.” In the history of life on this planet, the human species is a blip on the radar. We might survive as long as ferns and fir trees, alligators and algae… but we might also go the way of the triceratops and the Irish elk. If the history of life on Earth were the history of all music, the history of human life would be “Who Let The Dogs Out?”
Okay. Let’s sum up for a moment. The universe, post- Big Bang, is roughly 14 billion years old. It consists of billions and billions of galaxies, separated by vast expanses of empty space. Each of those galaxies consists of billions and billions of stars, also separated by vast expanses of empty space. Some of those stars have big hunks of rock orbiting them. And about four and a half billion years ago, in one of those galaxies, around one of those stars, one of those big hunks of rock happened to have a chemical process take place on it that resulted in structures that were able to replicate themselves. Over the eons, the self-replicating structures proliferated into an uncountable variety of different forms. And a mere two and a half million years ago, one of those millions of forms emerged in something resembling its present state… and in pretty much its present state a ridiculously paltry 200,000 years ago.
To be fair, the human-centered view of the universe wasn’t always ridiculous. It wasn’t ridiculous, say, 5,000 years ago, before Galileo and Darwin and Hubble. It wasn’t ridiculous when — as far as we knew — humans had always been around, and the sun and moon and stars all revolved around us. We didn’t have any reason to think otherwise.
But now we do.
And now we have to let go.
If you’re not a hard-line creationist, if you accept the sciences of astronomy and paleontology and evolution, then you have to accept this simple fact: we are not the center of the universe. We are not the center of anything, except our own lives and history. We are a dust speck on an eyelash on a flea in the vastness of space; we are an eyeblink on that flea in the vastness of time. To think that all of the mind-boggling hugeness of space and time was created just so that flea could blink its eye… that’s one of the most arrogant beliefs I can imagine.